- A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons
Paul Jennings, James Madison, Dolley Madison, Slavery
In 1865, Paul Jennings, the enslaved personal manservant of President James Madison, published a memoir of his life experiences called A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison. Although A Slave in the White House is based on Jennings’s Reminiscences, Elizabeth Dowling Taylor cleverly offers the reader a more candid and intimate account of life in Madison’s White House and private home, Montpelier. Having plowed through family records, oral histories, and numerous other primary sources, she has provided a robust story of the cruelty of slavery and the struggle for freedom from the perspective of the enslaved people who worked closely with the Madisons. [End Page 719]
Aside from the narratives of enslaved people, we often learn about the details of slavery from owners’ diaries, letters, and bills of sale or auction notices, runaway advertisements, and slave schedules. We long to know more about the details of the labor of enslaved people, both agricultural and nonagricultural, and how labor affected their lives and the lives of their family members. Sometimes the circumstances of their labor had its advantages, such as quietly learning how to read and write while serving the owner’s children as they were tutored. At other times the labor took its toll emotionally, as enslaved people were often separated from their family members for extended periods.
Scholars of slavery will appreciate how Dowling Taylor provides insight on the methods and skills required for labor in and around the owner’s house. She is careful to include snapshots of the lives of other enslaved people who worked directly with Jennings for the Madisons or at homes nearby. She explains their skills in culinary arts, as butlers and ladies’ maids, and as coachmen. Like Jennings, these “trusty” (119) servants astutely used their skills and circumstances to gain the confidence of their owners and, eventually, access to individuals who would help them gain their freedom.
Not only are readers given the particulars about the daily life of the Madisons at their country estate but also they are introduced to their White House home and the thriving city of Washington, DC in the early nineteenth century. The political hotbed of the nation’s capital finds Jennings as the proverbial “fly on the wall,” the ever-present servant quietly listening as Madison and his contemporaries discuss compromises, manumission, abolition, colonization, and gradual emancipation. Through the author’s delightfully descriptive writing, we get vivid images of Jennings carefully maneuvering through the intricacies of urban slavery with its black people (both enslaved and free) and, consequently, its black codes.
While Dowling Taylor identifies historical events and Jennings’s connection to or involvement in them, she should allow readers to draw their own conclusions about what Jennings must have felt or thought. For instance, she explains that Jennings was hired out by Dolley Madison to President Polk at the White House. She writes that Jennings must have been “gratified” (154) to see George Washington’s portrait hanging (thanks to his saving it from British invasion during the War of 1812). Perhaps Jennings looked at Washington in disgust—as another owner of enslaved people who kept his brethren oppressed. He saved the portrait [End Page 720] because his owner ordered him to do so, perhaps not because of his love or admiration for George Washington. In addition, the author should have been more careful not to use negative historical language to make contemporary assertions. For example, a visitor to Montpelier described Jennings as “well-bred” (79). The author affirmed this description using the same words. Perhaps animals could be perceived as “well-bred,” whereas people are raised.
Despite these acute shortcomings, Dowling Taylor gives attention to the details of Jennings’s surroundings and the people in his life (beyond the Madisons). She adds layers, dimension, and depth to anything we may have previously read in Reminiscences or in the Madisons’ papers. A Slave in the...